FHKAD attorneys Dan Downey and Paul Bernhart recently received summary judgment on behalf of the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office in a lawsuit alleging an unlawful search and seizure in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiffs filed the lawsuit against the Fairfield County Commissioners, Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office and several law enforcement officers.
The case involved a “knock and talk” operation conducted by the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office SCRAP (“Street Crime Reduction and Apprehension Program”) Unit. SCRAP is a small specialized unit that specifically targets narcotics complaints and drug activity at the street level throughout Fairfield County. The SCRAP Unit conducts knock and talks in which officers go to a residence, knock on the door, and advise the resident of the narcotics complaint. If the resident is willing to discuss the complaint, officers ask for consent to search the residence. If consent is not given, officers leave without conducting a search of the residence. Search warrants are not obtained before the SCRAP Unit conducts a knock and talk.
During a knock and talk, officers typically secure the perimeter of the residence while an officer knocks on the front door. Officers position themselves at each corner of the residence to have eyes on the exits as well as on each other. This is done for officer safety. Officers secure the perimeter foremost to prevent against an ambush. Because the SCRAP Unit responds to complaints of drug activity, there is an increased likelihood that officers are dealing with someone with a criminal history. Therefore, officers take steps necessary to protect themselves.
Prior to June 19, 2012 the Fairfield County Major Crimes Unit (“MCU”) received two tips that Plaintiffs were operating a methamphetamine lab and marijuana grow operation at their residence. The MCU passed the information on to the SCRAP Unit to investigate. Based on information the SCRAP Unit had on Plaintiffs, the supervising officer determined that officers would secure the perimeter of the residence during the knock and talk for officer safety. The officers did not obtain a search warrant before going to the residence.
On June 19, 2012 the SCRAP Unit conducted a knock and talk at Plaintiffs’ residence. A Deputy approached and knocked on the front door while other SCRAP officers took a position securing the perimeter of the residence. One of the officers stationed near the rear of the residence observed marijuana plants growing on the back patio. After officers made initial contact with the Plaintiffs, Plaintiffs shut the front door. Fearing they were destroying evidence, officers made exigent entry into the residence. Officers cleared the residence and detained Plaintiffs while they obtained a search warrant. Officers executed the search warrant and found drugs, contraband and other incriminating evidence, including a makeshift meth lab. Plaintiffs were arrested and indicted on multiple felony drug charges.
Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in Federal Court alleging officers unlawfully entered the “curtilage” of Plaintiffs’ residence and conducted a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. After discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The Court granted Defendants’ motion finding that the individual officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The Court relied on a case decided roughly a month after the June 19, 2012 incident, in which the Sixth Circuit held that a person’s right not to have his house surrounded by officers during a knock and talk was not clearly established. The Court reasoned, “based on the case law within the circuit at the time, a reasonable official would not have had fair warning that surrounding a house during a knock and talk was unconstitutional.” Consequently, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.
The Court also determined that Fairfield County was not liable. Although the Sheriff acknowledged that the County had a policy of surrounding homes during a knock and talk, the Court ruled that the policy was not facially unlawful. The Court found that “given the diversity of knock and talk circumstances, as well as the various factors involved in a determination of what is or is not curtilage, a policy of surrounding homes during knock and talks does not always lead to a constitutional violation. That is, while officers might violate Fourth Amendment rights by intruding upon a home’s curtilage during some knock and talks, the act of surrounding a home does not inherently violate the Fourth Amendment.” Accordingly, the County cannot be found liable.
Law enforcement agencies should evaluate their own polices on knock and talk and similar operations in light of the Court’s ruling. For any additional information on the case, please contact Dan Downey at firstname.lastname@example.org or Paul Bernhart at email@example.com.